“I is Another” – Using Persona In Poetry
I think that the quote, “I is another” which appears in a letter by Arthur Rimbaud is charged with meaning and possibility. Here I am using it as a way to think about the use of persona in poetry. How can the “I” in a poem stretch beyond the confines of personal experience, even beyond personal belief systems?
Adopting a persona as a writer isn’t something new – you only have to read John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” to know that Milton really enjoyed getting into the persona of Satan. And for fiction writers it is daily bread and butter. But in my personal experience of poetry these days, I feel like it is a practice that has generally fallen into disuse. Aside from the common tweaking’s of personal experience or thought that every first-person poem is bound to have – how many of us these days are making the effort to create poems centered around characters whose sex, race, creed, or economic status are different from our own? Now, yes, there are arguments aplenty against adopting the voice of an other … and they are great arguments! Exploitation, co-opting, misrepresentation, and your basic colonialist domination are just a few. And I believe those problems should always be in the mind of a “persona” writer. But on the other hand what can we learn, breaking from our own limited worldview, by slipping ourselves as much as we can do, into the skin of another?
Here is a prose poem that is in the voice of a nurse by an author who has a very different job, and who (I have been informed by the author) is a different sex.
By Christien Gholson
I don’t always remember the names of the dead, but I recognize faces. I see them sometimes, at Price Chopper, Toys R Us. I’m not talking about ghosts. There’s no such thing, not in my world. I simply catch a glimpse out of the corner of my eye and it looks just enough like a former patient to make me turn, look again.
I administer the drugs, keep them comfortable. Feed tubes, morphine drips. Sometimes they talk. I listen…most of the time. My best friend Ellie once asked me “What is death?” as if I would know the answer. Why should I know? I deal with cachexia, the body wasting away.
This afternoon, I visited the mother of a man I nursed for the past two months. She watched as his body slowly decayed from esophageal cancer and chemo. When he could no longer swallow, he was hooked to a feed tube. That’s when I arrived. In the final two weeks the cancer broke through the skin, opening holes in his neck. He died last weekend. He was thirty-eight.
We drank coffee. She talked about the possibility of snow, about the music for the funeral. Did I want to hear his favorite song? As I was leaving I touched her arm and looked into her eyes – the boy’s death was all I could see – and, for the first time in my life, I understood the urge to ask that impossible question “What is death?”
When I got home I stood in the middle of my kitchen in the dark, keys in hand, unable to move; so still. I swear I could feel the earth spinning beneath me; the stars turning above, following the sun to their graves…